Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How to Hear the "Silent Majority" of Customers

For CEOs and CMOs, it is essential to gain a representative sample of your customers' opinions in order to best align product, service, and business strategy with their needs. As a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill IMC program, I have been studying segmentation and feedback techniques and found these two articles to have valuable managerial implications.

As anecdotal evidence from Yelp! or customer reviews can attest, it is usually the more extreme reactions to one’s products/services that motivate customers to comment. For better or for worse, social media amplifies the voice of those who are expressing their sincere appreciation for a product or seeking revenge for poor service with a blistering critique. The majority of customers expects satisfaction and won’t make the effort to remark on the commonplace. In fact, according to authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Groundswell, the majority of Americans can be described as “joiners” and “spectators” (see table 1 below). “Joiners” are those individuals who “visit and maintain a profile on a social networking site” while “spectators” are engaged with others’ content, (e.g. posts, podcasts, videos) but rarely contribute their own. While both “spectators” and “joiners” are active and receptive to the opinions of others, they are not demonstrably participative. The concern is that the opinions of this “silent majority” will be underrepresented while the active users with characteristically polarizing opinions will be overrepresented. This may in turn pervert the company’s marketing strategy in a direction that alienates the silent majority who are content with the current state of affairs.
Indeed, in a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, the company ForeSee charts how remarkably different the opinions of what Groundswell would label as “conversationalists” and “critics” are from the opinions of “spectators” and “joiners”. In the graph below, ForeSee draws a normal distribution curve as a point of comparison between the blue opt-in customer feedback curve and a randomly-sampled survey shown in orange. Although the Harvard Business Review is quick to admit how valuable customer feedback is as a point-of-contact, they may give companies a false impression of actual levels of satisfaction.

For customers who prefer not to provide feedback, companies have been using “cookies” as a way to better track and understand customer’s online behaviors on their personal computers. However, as a recent article from the Wall Street Journal explains, despite an increase in U.S. mobile ad spending from $1.5 billion in 2011 to $4.1 billion in 2012, companies are still having trouble pinpointing mobile users’ online activity. As a growing number of customers supplement their desktops’ online activities with mobile, the risk of overlooking the “silent majority” without these behavioral metrics increases. 

Based on my experience in Northwestern's IMC program and my interpretation of these two articles, I have made three recommendations which can be applied immediately. 

1.     Incentivize your Customers- From Groundswell, the authors recommend incentivizing your customers to comment with a built-in reputation system that rewards customers with greater status. This will encourage more active participation from those who may not otherwise feel compelled to do so and recognize the valuable contributions of loyal customers.
2.     Just Ask- To ForeSee the answer is simple, just ask! Returning to Figure 1, when ForeSee randomly surveyed their site’s visitors, they found a much wider distribution of opinions that skewed towards the positive and complimentary. Impromptu surveys gave the company a more precise impression of customers’ opinions.
3.     Collect and Aggregate Data- Although the Wall Street Journal admits that mobile tracking technology will certainly improve in the future, the current method is to triangulate users’ mobile and desktop through downloads, apps, and/or cookies. This aggregate data gives companies’ a more holistic understanding of customers’ online behavior.

By applying one or all of these tactics, CEOs and CMOs can listen to the full range of customer experiences and gain a more accurate depiction of the current satisfaction landscape. This in turn, will enhance business strategy.

- Margaret Kamraczewski, is a full-time Masters of Science candidate at Northwestern University's Integrated Marketing Communications program at Medill. Her previous experience was in market research. Her focus is on brand and advertising strategy. Follow her on Twitter @Margaret_Kam.

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